Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Happy Youth Vandalism

I was recently on the lookout for an inexpensive digital game; my short-list included the indie survival-horror Amy, the beat-them-up Scott Pilgrim vs The World, the experimental and innovative Flower, and the action-packed Hydrophobia. Yet none of these titles fully convinced me. And then, browsing what was on offer at the psn, I finally found it; Jet Set Radio, one of the finest games I had played back when I was the proud owner of a Sega Dreamcast, and which I loved to bits.

The original game, which has been remastered in HD, for every conceivable platform, is one of the early experiments in cel-shaded graphics, and awarded true classic status, having received accolades ever since its original 2k release. If you are looking for a game that will take steady persistence to complete; brilliant, since the gameplay from JSR is rather old-school, making the difficulty level quite high; even the game's tutorial is just about the hardest in recent memory. Having said that, the title packs an irresistible dose of nostalgia, and comes with nifty extras.

And so I find myself as a gamer, in the capable hands of another Japanese creation. The story is straight-forward, as you are part of a gang of graffiti street artists, which other skaters later join, competing against other gangs in quirky turf wars, while a relentless troup of policemen; who evidently watched the film Maniac Cop one time too many, chase you, led by Cap. Onishima; who in turn, is surely a big fan of the movie Psycho Cop. But there are also shady corporations and ruthless assassins; powerful enemies awaiting the ever-expanding GG gang. This, at least, is what happens in between cut-scenes, during which everybody just boogies.
The art direction is quite simply superb, and holds up wonderfully after all these years. As the story goes, the developers wanted to replicate the fashion and music styles they saw in the streets of Tokyo during the nineties, with a little bit of western elements thrown in for good measure. This is, after all, a Smilebit creation, a talented game development studio if there ever was one, responsible for many great Dreamcast titles, as well as others for various platforms.
Jet Set Radio presents more hardcore gameplay, so to speak, with time limits, than its sequel, Jet Set Radio Future, released for the original Xbox, which is more accessible, having no time limits. In JSR, you often have to replay a level, given that there are secret passways, which lead you to completion of the level. In fact, if you do not plan everything to perfection, you will not clear the levels; this is the game's greatest weakness and greatest strength. The game mechanics may remind you of the Tony Hawk series, as you grind and do tricks that net you points, yet JSR takes place in a cartoony world, hence the flashy combos get a free pass, even though they kind of defy the laws of physics.
The original soundtrack is pure awesomeness. Some of the stand-out tracks are Let Mom Sleep and Humming the Bassline, by composer Hideki Naganuma, as well as Magical Girl and Super Brothers by indie band Guitar Vader, and Everybody Jump Around, by Richard Jacques, a composer I have admired for a long time, due to his work on Metropolis Street Racer and the Headhunter game series. I can't help but compare JSR to the Skate series, in that they are both landmarks in gaming; distant relatives connected through the decades via similar game mechanics, and the fact that more computing power and the evolution of the medium itself, has allowed for much smoother controls, more depth and precision, at the service of a fun ride. Only for hardcore gamers.